Celebrating its 12th year in 2011, the Americana Music Association delivered somewhere around 100 artists in five venues, a swath of panel discussions and a trade show, a countless assortment of parties and side events, a concert in the park, and lord knows what else. But it's not even the schedule which matters so much at this conference and festival - nor which of the five venues you wind up bouncing between at night (there's incredible stuff happening everywhere). The AMA is about good people who love good music. And, by "love good music," I mean there's a whole lot of all of that going on - love, goodness, and music.
I've been accused before of politicizing everything. Just know I'm aware of that before you read any further.
Because, honestly, what was on my mind the most as I made my way through the Americana Music Association Conference and Festival (to which I'll refer from here on out as "the AMAs") was Occupy Wall Street. What does that have to do with love, goodness, and music? Plenty.
When I first heard of the Occupy movement, I thought what probably a lot of other people thought (and maybe many still think): a random collection of dirty hippies gathering to make a stink about things they don't entirely understand, without a clear message, yadda yadda. A week later, they were still at it. Two weeks later, still going, now with more people. My ears perked up. Okay, I figured, maybe this is something. I googled it, read the list of demands, decided I was on board.
Now that Occupy has been rolling for a month straight - meaning people have been demonstrating around the clock for a month, forsaking everything else to make this movement work - I haven't occupied anything. Or, I guess, in a way, I've been occupying this blog space for some time now. This weekend at the AMAs, I simply couldn't tear my mind away from the whole shebang. It all seemed apropos.
It's the nature of the AMAs to do a little navel gazing. Plenty of the panels look at questions which can boil back to "What is Americana?" The who are we and what are we here for stuff can feel like a broken record, and yet it persists. This is a self-conscious movement in music, after all, and it's important for us all to be on the same page. Especially when we're staring down something as giant and daunting as AAA radio which, for all intents and purposes, isn't really the opponent here (I don't think any kind of music has any kind of opponent, as long as it's made out of genuine passion). AAA radio is, however, the establishment.
The AMA started as a group of people who believed in music which didn't "fit in" with AAA radio, and who wanted to give it a home. They threw a rope around it, said "we'll call this Americana," and 12 years later there's a four-day festival which includes everyone from Amanda Shires to Robert friggin' Plant, more than 1100 attendees to the trade conference on the topic, not to mention a Grammy Award and a dictionary definition for the term. Not too shabby.
But, all that happened slowly, organically, and as the result of some people (including our own Kyla Fairchild) ruminating over the idea at South by Southwest back in - what was it? '98? '99?
It was a different world then. Remember the '90s? You couldn't have possibly started anything in the '90s knowing where the ensuing decade would land us. You certainly couldn't have told anyone in the '90s that Robert Plant would become a benchmark of an Americana music movement which would be heavily driven also by Americana music scenes in Brooklyn and Seattle. You couldn't even have convinced '90s you that O Brother was going to happen and matter, and stick, and still be sticking ten years after it released. I'm stating the obvious here to make a point.
It is the nature of the passing of time that we don't have a firm grip on what's happening until it's already happened.
Any songwriter can tell you the best songs about heartache don't always come when you're in the thick of it. Sometimes they come long before the heartache shows up. Sometimes songs are prophecies for the songwriter. Two years later, when your world has just fallen apart and you find yourself at some random venue on the road singing for strangers, suddenly you realize you wrote that song for this moment.
Often, it happens the other way around - you write the song long after the feeling has passed, when you've learned the lesson, or are just about to. Looking back from the song, you can see what all the at-the-time apparently directionless chaos was aiming for, because it steered you exactly to where you are now.
Twelve years into the AMAs, the organization has a firm enough grip on what it's about, even the dictionary can put "Americana" into a concise collection of words.
Occupy Wall Street should be so lucky in 12 years.
Point being...as I made my way from venue to venue - catching outstanding, surprising, memorable sets from David Wax Museum, Tim Easton (who I unexpectedly loved, and you can watch that video above), Farewell Drifters, Brian Wright, Nikki Lane, Eric Brace & Peter Cooper, and more - I was thinking about what people are capable of when they get together.
By which I mean two things.
There's the relationships aspect - running into people who live far from where I live, who I see once a year at these things, but with whom I can always pick up an interesting conversation as if we were just talking about this stuff yesterday. Fellow bloggers and Twitter friends - Twang Nation, Country Fried Rock, @warnerblaster, @marketmonkeys, etc. Reminders that "internet people" are actually in the world doing very good work, for the right reasons, dedicating their lives to the preservation of art and the proliferation of ideas. It's good to connect with them, make some eye contact, remember those words we see on screens come from people with whom we're essentially working together, toward a collective goal. In this case, maintaining a space for Americana music. That is, after all, what the trade conference is there for - all the panels and discussions, to remind ourselves and each other of what matters, to learn how to to it better, to share what we know so everyone can benefit from our learning process.
Then there's the music itself, which people make together. Perhaps the most exceptional thing humans are capable of doing together. Many an artist and brilliant mind has likened the creation of music to religion - to proof that God exists, or what have you. People can get together in a room - whether it's Buddy Miller, Jerry Douglas, Emmylou Harris, Don Was, and Alison Krauss singing an old gospel hymn at the Ryman Auditorium or Malcom Holcombe roaring against a packed crowd in the basement of Grimey's record store - pick up a piece of wood, look each other in the eye, and create something which speaks to a certain human need so universal, the room full of shoulders-to-shoulders strangers knows, for as long as the song lasts, we all agree on this. There is something for each of us here. We may never see each other again, but we can take with us the knowledge that this melody does something to us, both as individuals and one collective unit.
That's the very tool employed, in fact, by people when, say, they want to gather in a park and make a collective statement. When they're faced by cops - who were ordered to show up in riot gear just in case - and the people don't want any violence or friction. That's the same spirit which they employ as a tool when they start singing - as they did this weekend - "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine."
It's powerful shit, music.
The AMA, it's clear, is fiercely driven by and dedicated to the music it seeks to preserve. For all the awards and honors and sponsorships, etc., this is an organization where the music is the most important thing - not the egos, the fashion, the money, or the sway. There's something about the AMAs which makes it so much more plausible to get together to buck the establishment - be it AAA radio or the wealthiest one percent.
It's not always about turning up a finger, though. Sometimes it's about piling into a park on a sunny day with a bunch of strangers and doing the thing you all have in common. In NYC this weekend, that was Zucotti and Washington Square Park, singing Woody Guthrie tunes with Tom Morello, etc. In Nashville, it was lying on a blanket with a cupcake, listening to Ben Sollee cover Paul Simon.
Whatever the context, whatever the end result, it's all reaching for love, goodness, music.